Katherine of Aragon and the Battle of Flodden

The Battle of Flodden was fought between the armies of England and Scotland on 9th September 1513. The English army was led by Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey (future 2nd duke of Norfolk), with support from Lord Admiral Sir Thomas Howard (future 3rd duke of Norfolk), Sir Edmund Howard, Lord Dacre and Sir Edward Stanley. However, although Surrey had been entrusted with the military defence of the realm, it was Katherine of Aragon who had been appointed Regent while Henry VIII was campaigning in France. She had the authority to raise an army and a council headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The TV Series Spanish Princess depicted a pregnant Katherine taking to the battlefield. Whilst this is a complete fabrication, what was the extent of her involvement with the battle? Was she just a passive figurehead or did she play an active role as Regent?

Check out snippets of Katherine in action on the battlefield in the Spanish Princess series 2 trailer

From a young age, Katherine had been educated with the expectation that she would marry a foreign ruler. She had been educated in Latin (with an emphasis on liturgical texts), modern languages (although she not a natural linguist), classical and vernacular literature, and in traditional female crafts such as embroidery. Her mother had inspected the army at the siege of Grenada in 1492, dressed in armour, setting an example to her children. In 1507, when Katherine was living in a state of limbo, kept in relative poverty by Henry VII, her father gave her the formal credentials to allow her to participate in the negotiations about her future. She was given a cipher to decrypt letters from Ferdinand of Aragon and wrote letters to him in her own hand rather than via a secretary. Although this arrangement ended when a new ambassador arrived in 1508, Ferdinand gave her a second formal commission in the summer of 1509. This time, Katherine had arranged for the Spanish ambassador to be recalled and acted as the official line of communication between her husband and father until the new ambassador arrived in March 1510. The impression we get is of an educated and proactive woman who is unlikely to sit back passively in the face of the threat from Scotland.

After Henry VIII sailed from Dover, Katherine returned to London and her letters in late July and early August show that she was residing in Richmond and Windsor. At that time she was writing to Wolsey, and Margaret of Savoy, mainly expressing her concerns over the King’s health. She is also instructed by Henry VIII to summon the archbishop of Canterbury to investigate allegations made by the bishop of Winchester – we later learn that the archbishop duly presented himself to the Queen and some of the councillors remaining with her. Then, on 4th August, a letter from the Queen is sent to the Mayor and Sheriffs of Gloucester. In it she expresses her surprise that they have not yet responded for her request for the numbers of men and harnesses that the town can muster. News from the north indicates that the Scots are preparing for war and she demands that they submit their muster certificates within 15 days.

On 11th August, Lyon Herald delivered a message from James IV to Henry VIII instructing him to return home or James would attack England. Henry refused and instructed Katherine and her councillors to prepare with all haste to defend the realm. In a letter of 13th August, Katherine expresses her concerns over the King’s health and safety before going on to say that she is encumbered with war. In England, they are glad to be busy with the Scots, seeing it as a pastime. As for herself, she writes: “My heart is very good to it, and I am horribly busy with making [of] standards, banners, and badges.”

The Scottish army crossed the border at Coldstream on 22 August, and spent the next couple of weeks capturing the primary English border castles. Surrey was busy mustering his army and battling poor weather as he travelled north from Pontefract to Northumberland. On 2nd September, a week before the battle, Katherine was still in Richmond and writing to Wolsey. He had informed her that the Duke of Longueville (captured at the Battle of the Spurs) is to be sent to join her household. In response, she stated that it was not convenient for her to have the duke: there was no-one of suitable rank to wait on him and he should be sent to the Tower of London “specially the Scots being so busy as they now be, and I looking for my departing every hour.” The following day she issued a commission to Sir Thomas Lovell to muster an army from the midland counties. This army was no doubt intend to bolster Surrey’s army which had been mustered from the towns and villages of the northern counties, and supplemented with men from the Lord Admiral’s fleet.

Although Katherine did not state that her imminent departure was to go north but Henry VIII’s chamber book show that a payment was issued for conveying ordinance “with the queen’s grace northwards”. On 8th September, Katherine signed and sealed a warrant for 1500 Almain rivets (a type of armour) to be given to her servant Owen Holand “to be conveyed in our journey to Warwick”. (Read about these documents here). It is likely that she was going to meet Lovell at Warwick.

The Flodden memorial near Branxton village, Northumberland

In the event, Surrey’s convincing victory over the Scottish army, and the death of James IV, meant that a second army was not required. According to Hall’s Chronicle, Katherine had rasied a “great power” to resist the Scots and was at Buckingham, little more than 50 miles from Richmond, when she received word from Surrey of his victory. On 16th September, Katherine wrote to Henry VIII from Woburn Abbey, forwarding him a letter from Surrey and a piece of James IV’s surcoat. She had wanted to send the Scottish king’s body to her husband “but our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it”. The body was instead sent to Sheen and remained unburied until Elizabeth I’s reign.

There is no doubt that it was the earl of Surrey and his war council, made up of his sons and the leading men of the north, who organised the army that fought at the Battle of Flodden. Katherine did not set foot on the battlefield herself(!) and, if she did give a rousing speech to the English captains firing them up to march against the Scots (as reported by Peter Martyr on 23rd September) it must have either been in August, before Surrey headed north, or to the leaders of the second English army. However, neither was she simply a figurehead sewing banners for the army. She was issuing commissions and warrants to for the mustering and arming of Sir Thomas Lovell’s army, and taking towns to task for not responding to requests for information about their military strength. The language of her letters to Wolsey suggest that she was enjoying her role, and she clearly took delight in the victory which she told Henry was “to your Grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be”.

Sources

Research on the Tudor Chamber Books by Dr Sean Cunningham

Davies, C., & Edwards, J.  Katherine [Catalina, Catherine, Katherine of Aragon] (1485–1536), queen of England, first consort of Henry VIIIOxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 9 Sep. 2021

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1, 1509-1514, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1920), British History Online. Accessed 9 September 2021

Polydore Vergil, The Anglica Historia, Camden Society, lxxiv, (1950)

Hall’s Chronicle (London, 1809)

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